Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance (2011)


Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance Storyline

“Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Revenge” examines the life of serial killer and rapist Carl Panzram who lived from 1891 to 1930. It examines how his life hardened him into a psychotic murderer. It also examines how a prison guard Henry Lesser forged a friendship with him and encouraged him to write an autobiography.—Shatterdaymorn

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Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance Movie Reviews

A life less than perfect

Is it really Carl Panzram’s fault that he was born into a family of poverty, alcoholism, abuse and neglect? Carl Panzram was the type of man that the world would have been a much better place not running into him. He knew only one way to survive and that was to brutalize and rape his victims. His pain threshold and abnormal strength were well documented as were his very long list of crimes.

Like a bad car accident that you cannot turn your head away from while driving by, I had to watch this documentary and I am glad I did. I wouldn’t want to ever be 1,000 miles near Carl Panzram but in some weird way I still empathize with the life that Carl Panzram was subjected to living in and out of multiple hardcore prisons.

I give this documentary a credible 8 out of 10 IMDb rating.

Not very good overall

I’ve always had an interest in the psyche of mass murderers and career criminals so I jumped when I saw Panzram on this doc. The story of Panzram is quite interesting but this documentary really leaves too much to be desired. My opinions are not of the story of Panzram, but the documentary itself.

I simply don’t understand the generally high ratings this doc has gotten. First things first, the dramatic reenactments are almost comedically poor. Not the tone which is trying to be set yet I found myself shaking my head every time the actors took the screen. I found the sound effects used to emphasize aspects of the still pictures were either wrong (in that it seemed like someone had perhaps put the wrong sound in) or grossly misused. ADR was awful.

The biggest problem, however, is the disjointed nature and sporadic flow of the narrative. The story grinds to a halt as the testimonials are constantly brought up to very nearly justify the murders and rapes as being a result of institutionalization in the 20’s (despite the OBVIOUS immediate reaction that if this was so wide spread and rampant… why didn’t hardly anyone else in those systems react as Panzram did). The story will follow Panzram as a child and how he got in trouble then testimonials would interrupt claiming how he was tortured. Based on the facts presented in the doc, there was little torture of him as a child. In fact, he was mentioned to have been “spanked” as part of a punishment. One testimony simply glossed it over by saying, “we could only imagine what that was like”…. well given lack of any other indication one would guess a belt or a paddle much like nearly all disciplining was done back then. Yet, we’re made to feel almost sorry for this poor boy. My grandfather didn’t murder and rape dozens of people but he got paddled in school just like Panzram.

Really what the doc comes down to isn’t Panzram. It falls to Lesser, the guard, being a bit more progressive (completely naive) than the system he works for and the filmmakers views on 20’s institutions (as though anyone views them in a real positive light anyway). Which, in my opinion, is a bait and switch. You lure me into a doc about Panzram and I get really basic info without any real insights only to then preach a philosophy on prisons and youth education which as almost entirely already occurred in those systems over nearly the last century that this film is basing events off. But it wasn’t because of Panzram. Panzram didn’t revolutionize the prison system, he was merely a footnote in its history. Yet, this doc uses him as the poster child as though he single handedly altered perceptions. To most, he will forever be unknown. To those who do know of him, he was a murderer and a rapist.

Really, i’m not trying to be hard on it, but I just don’t feel this is a very strong documentary. Let me put it this way… one of the very few commentators is an artist who merely has a fascination with Panzram. And a museum where they have the hood and rope used during his execution spelled his name wrong… Panzran. You’d think a credible museum would want to have the name spelled right on their displays, right? Appears not. They explain why it’s spelled that way but it’s still incorrect and they know it.

Bottom line, it’s not the worst documentary but it fails to deliver on several levels. What’s worse, it’s preaching as to a moral completely overshadows the prime character’s story which the documentary is based on.


Panzram: Decent but Schizophrenic in approach

Summary: a film chronicling the life of Carl Panzram, self-confessed serial killer, rapist and thief from the early 20th century. The content is mostly based on his writings, produced in prison, following encouragement from a sympathetic prison guard who befriends him, Henry Lesser. The film tries to shed light on why Panzram became what he was, placing a lot of attention on the mistreatment he was subject to alongside brief commentary on the crimes he claimed to have committed.

This John Borowski documentary is good; his films are always good. But this is a departure from his previous work in that those were really just tales of the bogeyman, whereas this attempts to be something more: the actual fleshed-out story of the man rather than the persona. For some this will add substance and make watching more rewarding; for others, it places the film in competition with so many ‘straight’ documentaries and perhaps denies what Borowski seems so good at: namely telling ghoulish stories about some of the most intriguing but despicable men ever to live.

From my perspective, I like the fact that the documentaries are trying to be stimulating on more levels, but I think a trick was missed here because this story should be if anything as much about Henry Lesser as Panzram himself. He gets a decent amount of screen time but if this is intended to be a more human story, Lesser’s humanity is a perfect contrast to Panzram’s rage and hatefulness, and their friendship is what’s truly remarkable about the whole affair and elevates it above others. The fact that Panzram appears very introspective is also an area that is extremely interesting but that too is given only fleeting coverage.

Plusses: thorough, engaging, a worthy story and interesting subject

Minuses: has a bit of an identity crisis in what it wants to be, weak range of contributors (ex. an artist with a morbid fascination for serial killers: see previous criticism),